Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What, you mean I'm not in Paris after all?

To celebrate the first week of school and my completing my major projects over the summer (like writing a CD-ROM to accompany a first-year French textbook), Mr. Tart and I went out to dinner at a French restaurant in Denver, one we'd heard good buzz about: Z Cuisine. We loved it! Arriving early to snag a table in this tiny bistro that seats only twenty-some people, we snuggled into a corner and ordered our aperitifs: a peach kir royal for him, a chilled Lillet for me. Upbeat French music, including even funky Manu Chao, played in the background while we scrutinized the menu scribbled on a chalkboard. Not many choices--maybe five appetizers and five entrees--but still too many for the decision to be easy. The chef doesn't do frou-frou or trendy and he also doesn't limit himself to one particular region of France, as he offers hard cider and galettes from Normandy, cassoulet from the southwest, tartiflette from the Alps, and a few iconic classics, like Nutella crepes and creme brulee. The food is mostly traditional French, but with a few twists, as you'll see below. And that was just Saturday--apparently the menu changes significantly each day.

My appetizer, though not particularly French, delighted me: dungeness crab cakes on a tomatillo guacamole. They were both delicate and meaty, and I never would have thought of pairing tomatillos with seafood! Mr. Tart's appetizer, though, knocked our socks off. A long platter of small and ulta-sweet cantaloupe wedges flounced with a thick prosciutto, served with a thinly-sliced yellow heirloom tomato and a huge round of buffalo mozzarella so fresh that it oozed, topped with a dollop of a mustardy vinaigrette, with the whole platter sprinkled with tiny nicoise olives and toasted pinenuts and purple basil. When only the milky, tomatoey sauce and few nuts remained, we shooed the server away and tore off hunks of baguette to sop up every precious drop.

After that, we could have eaten canned tuna and gone home happy. But then the main course arrived. My galette, a savory crepe made with buckwheat flour, held firm, curly shrimp, several kinds and colors of wild mushrooms, and asparagus cut on the diagonal, all swimming in an unctuous bearnaise sauce made even more grown-up by truffle oil. Fabulous, filling, and French.

I had urged Mr. Tart to order the "Colorado Tartiflette" because I really, really wanted to see what it was. (It came with bacon, which I don't eat, so I wasn't going to order it myself.) You see, tartiflette is a simple Savoyard dish (from the Alpine region of Savoie in France), hearty winter peasant fare with potatoes and bacon and a very pungent cheese called Reblochon baked in a way that recalls other traditional cheese, meat, and potoato meals (such as gratins). (Want to read more about reblochon? Oui, oui! Click here!) I lived in Savoie for a year and have never seen a professional tartiflette since. (I've tried making it myself with turkey bacon and reblochon I snuck back into the country; it turns out okay but just isn't the same.)

So here's this daring chef, serving in the middle of the summer a hot, heavy dish with a funny name that the majority of his customers have certainly never heard of. It didn't help that the server described it as "sort of like a quiche"--it's nothing like a quiche! It doesn't include eggs! Anyway, the chef's Colorado version used local fingerling potatoes, which taste buttery to begin with, a braised fibrous cut of bacon an inch thick, and then--genius!--Fort Collins' MouCo's ColoRouge cheese as a stand-in for the reblochon. I think he also doused it in cream, and it grew a little crackly on top from being broiled. Mr. Tart loved it. And I loved the idea.

The other element that impressed me about this restaurant is that most of the plates and platters and pitchers are authentic hand-made French pottery (complete with authentic hand-made chips along the edges). Sturdy, decorated with a motif specific to where the chef found them (similar to my Savoyard pottery, but with a different kind of bird), in deep shades of green and blue and mustard, they looked like they just belonged with the food. I know very well how pricey these pieces are and how hard it is to get them back to the US intact: after twelve years of visits to Savoie, I finally have 4 plates, 4 bowls, 4 tea cups, a teapot, and a couple of serving dishes. I can't imagine what it took to bring back a restaurant's worth! Ths use of the pottery is yet another indication of the chef's dedication to both authenticity and simplicity.

During our meal, I imagined that we were sitting in a bistro tucked out of the way somewhere in Paris. When I looked out the front window and saw SUVs and the streets of Denver, it was jarring and dissonant. I left Z Cuisine with a luxuriantly happy tummy, feeling a little homesick for France, but thrilled that I was able to share this meal with the love of my life, and certain that we'll be back. (For the record, the other French restaurants in the area that we really like are Denver's Le Central, famous for its mussels and its affordability; Bistro Vendome in Larimer Square for the best brunches and frites ever; and Boulder's L'Atelier for fancy French food that always tastes exquisite.)


Blogger lis said...

I just like saying tartiflette. Not that I have any occasion to use it in every day conversation--so I am just sounding like a madwoman, muttering "tartiflette" as I go about my day.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Lis--it's only only natural that a Tart would enjoy pronouncing "tartiflette"! I'm not surprised.

8:08 PM  

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